Universiteit Leiden

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A safe work environment: investigative powers lacking

More has to be done to create a safe work environment for the staff of Leiden University. Confidential counsellors for PhD candidates were recently appointed, and the number of reported incidents is on the rise. But this is not enough. On 29 November, staff from the faculties and other universities came to PLNT to decide what else should be done.

Safe work environment conference 2019
A mixed bag...

A mixed bag had come to PLNT to discuss the matter at hand: HRM employees from the faculties and from Delft University of Technology, the University of Amsterdam and Maastricht University, university management, members of employee consultation bodies and confidential counsellors. The focus lay on two questions: how can an ombuds officer for staff help create a safe work environment and how do you encourage staff to report environments that are not safe at an earlier stage? Having listened to a few speakers, those present split off into small groups to engage in lively discussions about the two questions at hand: it was clear that the subject was close to everyone’s heart.

Investigative powers

The University Council has already been pushing for some time for an ombuds officer for staff who would have the same investigative powers as the ombuds officer for students does. One conclusion of the afternoon was that it should at least be possible to conduct an independent enquiry into telltale signs or reported incidents of misconduct. However, the overwhelming majority of the group didn’t think it made much difference who would be granted these powers: an internal officer, an external figure or an ombuds officer. ‘The main thing is that in some cases,’ said a voice in the room, ‘you have to get right to the bottom of the matter. Particularly if you suspect that there is a more fundamental problem behind a reported incident.’

Safe work environment conference 2019
Job van Lyken, the external ombuds officer for Delft University of Technology, gave an introduction. Here he can be seen in a discussion with one of the groups.

Need for clarity

The discussion also showed that there is a need for clarity about such investigative powers: whom should you contact for advice and who will conduct the enquiry? If you are considering reporting alleged misconduct or submitting a complaint, what will happen exactly? And what can be the consequences for the person who has submitted the complaint? 

The delegates also thought aloud about whether it would be useful to have a single point for reporting allegations of misconduct, which would then be passed on to the various confidential counsellors or someone with investigative powers. 

More reports made to ombuds officer

Delft University of Technology appointed an external ombuds officer for staff in spring 2019. He also spoke about his work. The HR Director of Delft University of Technology explained how more reports of misconduct are submitted to the ombuds officer at Delft than to the confidential counsellors that preceded him. What is the reason for this increase? Is it because the ombuds officer is more visible and easier to find? Does it relate to the investigative powers of the ombuds officer? Or is it linked to the image of the two roles? Delft University of Technology is looking into this.

Safe work environment conference 2019
Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker listens attentively to Jan Boersema, Confidential Counsellor for PhD candidates at the Faculty of Science.

Fear of reporting

There are often barriers to reporting feeling unsafe at work. Fear can take the upper hand. Staff, and PhD candidates in particular, but also researchers, are reticent about submitting a complaint because they are scared that it will cost them their job or their career even. The general opinion at PLNT was that reporting incidents must be a matter of course, and that this should be the prevailing message conveyed through the different communication channels. In addition, people who report an incident must not run the risk of becoming a victim again, precisely because they have filed the report.


‘We haven’t spoken about racism yet,’ said one delegate later in the afternoon. This led to the question of whether staff who have experienced racism consult a confidential counsellor at all. It is clear that by its very nature racism is a more fundamental problem than, for instance, academic jealousy or misunderstandings.

Safe work environment conference 2019
Two employees of People Intouch also attended the conference. This company acts as a platform for reports made to various companies and institutions.


The word ‘prevention’ cropped up frequently in the wake of the discussion about reporting misconduct. A panacea it would seem. But prevention isn’t something you achieve at the drop of a hat: it is a matter of ‘training’ the entire university community. The staff need to know what is expected of them. And one requirement for this is clearly defined core values and standards. But that is easier said than done, said some delegates. What do we understand respect to mean? Cultural differences can play a role here.

A code of conduct for quoted companies was introduced in the Netherlands in 2005, following the recommendations of the Tabaksblat Committee [in Dutch]. This informed ideas on what constitutes a safe work environment. It initially related to the minimum that quoted companies had to document about acceptable conduct, but other companies and institutions began to think about a safe work environment and opinions began to evolve. The next step was to think in terms of limiting the risk of reputation or financial damage, and to ensure that people complied with the rules. Now it is time for the next step again: a safe work environment as a higher goal and the introduction of integrity management. The focus here is (once again) on a code of conduct instead of rules.

‘Much is being done already’

Rector Carel Stolker explained how a safe work environment is high on the administrative agenda: ‘Much is being done already. It’s just that by no means everything is publicised. Lots of small steps are being taken. Administrators discuss difficult cases with one another as well as how they solved them so that they can learn from one another.’ How to create a safe work environment is also addressed in the leadership training that is compulsory for all managers at the University. The process will continue to be a matter of baby steps. ‘For a long time, Leiden was a professors’ university. They ruled the roost,’ said Stolker. ‘That is outdated and it is changing. It’s no longer I but we. This slogan, From I to we, is the cornerstone of the leadership that we now need and of how we interact with one another.’

Safe work environment conference 2019
Judi Mesman was a knowledgeable and entertaining chair.

Active bystander

Conference chair Judi Mesman, Professor of Interdisciplinary Research of Societal Challenges at University College and the Institute of Education and Child Studies, and Dean of Leiden University College, injected a dose of humour into the proceedings as she deftly made sure they ended at the exact time of the post-conference reception. On a candid and serious note, she appealed to the delegates to be an active bystander: ‘If you see something dodgy, sound the alarm, even if it has nothing to do with you. I myself failed to do this for too long.’

Leiden University has five confidential counsellors: for personnel affairs (staff), malpractice (students and staff), academic integrity (students and staff), unacceptable behaviour (students and staff) and PhD candidates. In practice, these posts are held by more than five people. The students also have an ombuds officer.

Neither the confidential counsellors nor the ombuds officer is answerable to University management in their work. They do submit an annual report to and discuss their general observations with the Executive Board of the University, without going into individual cases. If a substantial number of reports are made about one department, this is something that they can flag up.

Confidential counsellors look from the perspective of the person who is filing the report. They can advise, mediate or make a referral. The confidential counsellors are bound by strict confidentiality.

The biggest difference between the confidential counsellors and the ombuds officer is that the ombuds officer is impartial and has the power to conduct an enquiry, which means interviewing people about an issue and requesting documentation.

The confidential counsellors had turned out in force on 29 November. In the first row from the right: Marije Bedaux and Nadia Garnefski (both for personnel affairs), Ingrid Tieken (academic integrity) and Piet de Boer (unacceptable behaviour). In the second row: second from right is Jan Boersema (for PhD candidates at the Faculty of Science) and third from right Gert de Boer (malpractice). Judi Mesman interviewed them about their work.

Text: Corine Hendriks
Photos: Monique Shaw
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